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Slavery in Ancient Greece

written by: Bruno Kos • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 8/2/2012

When many students think of slaves they often think of slavery in the U.S. prior to the Civil War. However, many ancient countries had slaves. Although mistreatment was always possible some were treated quite well. Learn more about the practice of slavery in Greece.

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    Slavery was deeply incorporated in the society of ancient Greece. It is estimated that almost every citizen owned at least one slave. It is interesting to perceive in the works of contemporary writers that slavery was actually necessary for their society. Some even speculate that the citizens of Ancient Greece would have never achieved so much in the fields of art, philosophy and theater if they did not have personal “support" from the slaves themselves.

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    Sources of Slaves

    Slaves usually came from the following sources:

    Piracy and banditry: Depending on the era and geographical region, both piracy and banditry played a crucial part in providing a significant supply of slaves. If someone was caught by pirates or bandits, a ransom was to be paid for his or her release. If they were unable to pay, the prisoner was then sold to a slaver.

    War: The war rules of the time were rather simple; the winner took it all. This rule applied to both civilians and soldiers. Many of them were recruited into slavery; sometimes even entire cities were made slaves.

    Slave trade: According to historical sources, the main slave-trade centers were in the cities of Ephesus and Byzantium. Slaves being sold in these centers came from several sources such as piracy and banditry, but in some cases, parents sold their children into slavery as well. It is important to mention that nationality was very important for major slave buyers; they usually purchased slaves who had a different nationality, simply to avoid possible revolt.

    How much did a slave cost? Naturally, the price of a slave was dependent on his or her abilities, age, appearance and overall attitude. For example, if a slave had quality characteristics, calculated in present value, he or she would cost around the equivalent of $180 American dollars. If there was a victory in war and a large amount of slaves suddenly appeared on the market, prices would go down accordingly.

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    Jobs

    Slaves performed two types of jobs: private and public. As the name suggests, private slaves were owned by a private person; their “master." On the master’s property, they performed different jobs both inside and outside of the house. Therefore, the slaves did all of the cooking, cleaning, child care, garden work and work in the fields.

    On the other hand, there were public slaves, owned by the government and involved in correspondence tasks. These slaves were accountants, secretaries, clerks, scribes and the like. In some cities, they were even engaged with police work.

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    Treatment of Slaves

    Since ancient Greece spanned across a huge area, it is not unusual that treatment of slaves differed significantly among the regions. Regardless of this, there were some characteristics common to slaves:

    • Since they were considered "items" for sale, they did not have an ability to choose where they lived or with whom; their master made these decisions.
    • They did not have an opportunity to follow their own interests; they would only perform the duties their master would assign to them.
    • In front of the law, they were not able to represent themselves; this was handled by their master.
    • Captive slaves did not retain their names; their names were chosen by their master.
    • Their overall treatment was dependent upon their usefulness and purpose.
    When considering the overall status and privileges of slaves, one should always consider the fact that they were far from being “regular“ citizens of Greece. Instead, they were nothing but "items" for sale and treated accordingly.

References

  • Yvon Garlan; “Slavery in ancient Greece", Cornell University Press, 1988
  • Jacqueline Dembar Greene; "Slavery in Ancient Greece and Rome", Scholastic Library Pub, 2001
  • Moses I. Finley: "Classical slavery", Routledge, 1987 - Social Science
  • Thomas R. Martin; "Ancient Greece: from prehistoric to Hellenistic times", Yale University Press, 2000

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